Release Date: January 11, 2013
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Writer: Will Beall, Paul Lieberman (book)
Stars: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
MPAA Rating: R
I really wish I could have been there during the pitch for Gangster Squad, so that I could know what film director Ruben Fleischer and writer Will Beall actually set out to make. In it’s completed form, Gangster Squad is a jumbled mess – too violent to be mindless fun, too light and comical to be a noir and too unrealistic and over-the-top to support its “inspired by a true story” claim.
If it could have settled into any particular style, the film may have worked. But instead it jumps back and forth between them, each transition incredibly jarring and bizarre. One minute, our hero is brutally beating a group of gangsters attempting to rape a girl, the next he his assembling a ragtag group of wisecracking cops to help take down the crime syndicate. The comedy is incredibly broad, but the violence is visceral and unsettling. Parts of it feel like a perfectly fun family-friendly gangster movie, while other parts feature Sin City-esque violence and mayhem.
The actors themselves can’t seem to decide what movie they are in. Our hero, Sgt. John O’Mara, is played earnestly by John Brolin, who seems to think he’s in a serious drama. But the villain Mickey Cohen is played by Sean Penn, who seems to think he’s in a remake of Dick Tracy. Penn gives a ridiculously cartoonish performance in which he snarls all of his lines and puckers his face as if he’s perpetually sucking on a lemon. Robert Patrick and Michael Peña, who play two of the cops in the titular “Gangster Squad,” think they are in a broad comedy, delivering zinger after zinger while mugging for the camera.
The story centers around a secret police task force assembled by Police Chief Parker (played by Nick Nolte, who sounds like he gargled with rocks before every scene) that is created to take down Mickey Cohen and his operatives by any means necessary. Cohen has bought most of the cops and judges in Los Angeles, so Parker wants his Gangster Squad to take out Cohen and his gang.
The set up could have been used to examine the contradiction of cops becoming gangsters themselves in order to take out the gangsters in their town. That would have added an intriguing wrinkle to the story, but the film isn’t interested in exploring it. Giovanni Ribisi’s character, Officer Conway Keeler, offers a few reservations about their tactics, but the film never dwells on them. It’s more interested with setting up the next big action sequence or joke.
The most interesting character in the film is Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling). O’Mara attempts to recruit him for the squad, but Wooters is too jaded and his self-preservation instincts are too high to get involved in what he sees as a doomed mission. But Wooters falls for Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), who happens to the the object of Cohen’s creepy infatuation. His interest in Faraday, combined with another unsettling incident caused by Cohen and his gang, convince him to reluctantly join the cause. Gosling and Stone have great chemistry and his character seems the most nuanced and intriguing. Wooters has flaws and conflicting desires, while everyone else in the film is presented in one-dimensional, black-and-white terms.
As jumbled and haphazard as the whole film seems, there are a few actions sequences that are quite well done. The whole film has a high contrast look to it that makes it feel a bit like Sin City or 300. Fleischer makes good use of slow motion, as well, to draw out the action at key moments.
Some of the comedy works well too. There is a particularly amusing moment when Officer Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and Officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña) attempt to break O’Mara and Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) out of prison. Not all of the comedy works, but some of it got some big chuckles in the theater I screened this at.
The problem is that while these moments work in isolation, they never quite gel together. Instead, it feels like someone who likes tuna fish and peanut butter combining the two things together and expecting to make a delicious sandwich. The result, in both cases, is just bizarre and unappetizing.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.